Building Community in the Age of Disconnection

EPIC Academy at Lamoille Union High School

It’s 8:50 in the morning.  Students are leaving their jigsaw puzzles and sleepy conversations and rollicking games of “Headbands” and finding a seat.  Some choose bean bags or bungee chairs, a couple saddle up to bike desks and begin to aimlessly cycle, and still more plop down in traditional chairs that don’t rock or roll or bounce in any way.  For every smiling face and cheerful voice, there is a pained expression and exasperated sigh. It is to be expected. They are adolescents, and it is before 9 o’clock.

Our circle isn’t perfect from a geometric point of view, but we’ve worked to eliminate the space in between us, and there is intimacy in our amoeboid shape.  Nearly everyone has put away their phones, and those who forget are generally game to stow it with a gentle reminder. After a quick greeting from the facilitator, the first round commences.  “How’s everyone doing today?” It used to require an act of bravery to volunteer the first contribution, but now kids jump in without thinking twice. Some status updates make us giggle (“I got coal for Christmas.  Actual coal.”) and some make us subtly back our chairs away (“Everyone in my house has strep throat”), but most of them make us nod with (“I’m tired. I want to be home in bed.”)  Again, all par for the course with sleepy teenagers. But sometimes the updates peel back the curtain on students’ lives and knock the wind out of us. Homelessness. Sick relatives.  Complicated custody situations. Death. When a student shares a piece of their lives, the circle lives in the moment with them, sometimes words of understanding and support springing up around the room, other times silence and heads nodding. 

Once we’ve made it around the loop, the next round commences.  Now that we’ve covered our worlds, what is happening in the world?  Some contributions are local “Did you hear about the fire in Johnson?” or “The dance recital is this Thursday.  Everybody should come!” Others reflect stories far from home- koalas displaced by wildfires, Uighurs in detention camps.  Some current events evoke sympathy or outrage or heated debate. Passions flare over the validity of the gender pay gap or animal sentience.  Students argue over the role of America in policing other nations or the appropriation of symbols by white supremacists. Sometimes they change each others’ minds, most of the time they don’t.  Many listen silently, having never heard of “implicit bias” or how plant-based diets are related to climate change. 

By 9:30, students are shuffling away from the circle and heading into their own project time. Some work with partners to customize sneakers, build an escape room, or write a musical.  Others work independently studying everything from caffeine to Korean pop music to graphic design. They congregate around tables and counter tops and couches. Some are smiling, but others still look grumpy and tired and obviously wishing to be watching Netflix instead of being in school. But, for the most part, there is kindness.  A student stops working on his project to help another solder a wire onto his electric guitar. Four volunteer to go into the podcast studio to help their friend record a segment. Because of their updates in circle, students know who might need a little love and who might need a little space. We’re all a bit more understanding when that person uses a snippy tone or seems distracted or wants to go to see their school counselor.  

We continue to battle the presence of phones and the steady dopamine drip that so powerfully binds humans to their screens.  We cannot create walls thick enough to block out the interpersonal strife and cyber bullying that preoccupies and perpetuates pain.  We can’t erase the impact of unrealistic projections of perfection on social media and the resulting feeling of shame and unworthiness.  But we can put those phones away every morning and make eye contact.  We can pause the Snap Chat stories and speak actual words received by active ears.  We can teach empathy by sharing perspectives and learning how our life experience informs our points of view.  Students can sit in the EPIC Academy studio next to peers with whom they have never shared a class and get to know one another.  In a world of division and isolation, where we often connect more over Instagram posts than real life conversation, we have the opportunity to create a community of people joined by the shared experience of being human.

Amber Carbine-March and Kim Hoffman (Rowland Fellows 2018) left their science classrooms to found a project-based, learner-centered path called EPIC Academy at Lamoille Union High School.  When they aren’t helping their students figure out who they are and what they want out of life, they can be found frollicking in the Vermont wilderness with their adorable families (and likely each other).

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